Love and Friendship; or, the Rollicking Sensation When Austen’s Lady Susan Meets the Silver Screen

I had the amazing opportunity to see Whit Stillman’s Love and Friendship in March at a screening at the Wexner Center for the Arts at Ohio State University. If you have ever seen a Whit Stillman movie (Damsels in Distress, Metropolitan, Barcelona, etc.), you’ll have an idea of what you’re in store for—intelligent humor that irritates some viewers. I’ve never quite understood why that would be the case, but if you want a review that touches upon that, then I suggest you read “An Exceedingly Brief and Entirely Incomplete Defense of Whit Stillman’s Damsels in Distress on Nitrate Lights. As for Love and Friendship, it is as funny as, if not funnier than, Stillman’s Damsels in Distress. Then again, that might not be a fair comparison, since Love and Friendship is based on Jane Austen’s epistolary novel Lady Susan. While Austen’s social commentary is witty, Stillman adds another layer to it that had me falling out of my chair because I was laughing so hard.

love-and-friendship-movie-posterI’ve mentioned before that Lady Susan, consisting entirely of letters until the conclusion, allows the reader to get a glimpse into multiple characters instead of following one or two. More than that, the characters are allowed to express themselves, as opposed to being filtered through the lens of the narrator. BUT! The problem with epistolary novels is that nothing really seems that believable. How can someone remember word-for-word what was said in a conversation at a ball? They can’t. This is why I welcome Love and Friendship with open arms. Whit Stillman brings to life an epistolary novel with such exuberance that I wanted to watch it over and over and over again. I couldn’t, and that made me sad.

To speak momentarily of the actors and actresses, I cannot praise them enough. After watching the movie, you will think Lady Susan can’t be played by anyone other than Kate Beckinsale. In fact, every actor perfectly fits their part. They each play their characters with such authority and authenticity that even Austen would be laughing until her belly ached. Actually, I think she would be very pleased to see the characters come to life because she must have felt confined by the epistolary form. With Love and Friendship, though, her wide range of characters are vibrant. We can now see Sir James Martin bumble and babble his way through society that was merely a simple description in the novel: “Sir James talked a good deal, […] mixing more frequent laughter with his discourse than the subject required; [and] said many things over and over again” (71). I have to say that Tom Bennett’s Sir James Martin is such a memorable character that I found myself reciting some of his lines afterwards. Thanks to Stillman’s script and Bennett’s impeccable delivery, I have never been so amused by peas before! We can also see Lady Susan cleverly manage everyone like puppets, or so she thinks.

love-friendship-movie-wallpaper-21
Kate Beckinsale (Lady Susan) and Tom Bennett (Sir James Martin) in one of my favorite scenes. (This is not the pea one.)

There are going to be numerous reviews of this movie, so I won’t trouble you too much. As an Austen scholar and lover of all things 18th and 19th century, I have to say that Stillman executes Love and Friendship perfectly. When any of Austen’s novels are adapted to film, I’m keen to see it. Sometimes I like the outcome better than at other times. This one I loved. I am also a firm believer that Jane Austen is more than Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and Emma; she is her juvenilia, her letters, and her lesser known novels. She is a talented author of wit and social commentary that can only be depicted skillfully and artfully by another Austen aficionado, Whit Stillman.

In other words, GO SEE IT!

Be sure to check out the trailer up at the top. It’s well worth it!

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“It must be under cover to you.”: Austen and Epistolary Novels

51cn4fj4t-l-_sx325_bo1204203200_Lady Susan is one of the more complete pieces from Jane Austen’s juvenilia. With that being said, it still has an abrupt ending that one could only wish would have been more thoroughly finished. Even so, it’s not exactly uncharacteristic of Austen to wrap her novels up in nice pretty bows, which is what happens in Lady Susan though much more quickly. I believe the reason for this can be found in the form of the novel itself. It is an epistolary novel, and if you have ever read any, you will know that a story can only be carried so far through correspondence. To that end, she even writes, “This correspondence, by a meeting between some of the parties and a separation between the others, could not, to the great detriment of the Post Office revenue, be continued longer.” (pg. 101). Simply put: she got tired of it. Who can blame her?

It stands to reason that at the age of 20, when Austen was writing this, she decided to dabble in the style of her predecessors. She discovered, to our benefit, that she preferred a more traditional approach to novels. However, I will say that the epistolary novel gives the author a chance to dive into more of the characters since he or she is not restricted to the narrator chosen from the start. This creates an interesting effect in Lady Susan because instead of one narrator, we get something like 6 or 7 narrators. Each has their own personality without an objective observer making comments. I suppose, however, the characters do make their own comments, some more self-aware than others.

If you’ve read any of Austen’s novel, you’ll know that her biggest shtick is social commentary, and of course her wonderful sardonic humor. For example, this is seen in her overt witticisms through Elizabeth Bennet and in a less so obvious manner when you look at her personal preferences that sneak their way into her novels (see: her dislike of Bath and how it translates into the plot for
Northanger Abbey.) With this novel, however, I’m not sure there is so much criticism as there is a range of characters acting their part and remarking on each other. Naturally, that means that each opinion is skewed by that person’s viewpoint, allowing the reader, in a way, to form her own.

This cannot be seen in any better way than with Lady Susan herself. She is often the subject of every letter, including her own. Her person is fair game, whether it be her beauty or her coquetry. Her most vocal opponent is her sister-in-law Mrs. Vernon, who could be interpreted as jealous of Lady Susan’s flirtatious sensibility and sexuality. Then you have Lady Susan. She is not at all averse to touting her capabilities, although couching it in the guise of charm and innocence. Even one of the more logical, rational, characters becomes enamored with her. She, to her delight, masks her true sentiments and gains an admirer. What I find amusing is that her duplicity is all over her letters. To her friend Mrs. Johnson, she speaks nothing but truth (or so you think, who really knows with her), but then she turns around and lies to everyone else. The reader knows she’s lying, but the characters have to make assumptions and determine her character through her own words and the whispers about her. In a way, you could say that there is still a filter like a traditional narrator would give, only this time, the filter is not for the reader; it’s for the other characters.

I would like to point out that with the snarky remarks of Lady Susan to Mrs. Johnson, we’re left to wonder if perhaps Austen’s true personality is just as cutting. Lady Susan appears to be a mixture of Elizabeth Bennet, Mary Crawford, and even some Emma Woodhouse. Elizabeth and Emma both have some of the outspoken elements of Lady Susan, although tampered with their male counterparts. They end up being “hushed,” toned down for the reader. As I read once, this might be because Austen is writing in between the 18th and 19th centuries. The 18th century was far more open about life’s affairs, while the 19th century was reserved. Because of this, Austen is stuck between two worlds—should she be refined or not? Should she openly or obliquely refer to an adulterer? It’s an interesting thought.

If you would like to see Austen at an early stage, a less subdued author, then read Lady Susan. After all, it is only about 60 pages. While I have barely touched on it, I hope it does inspire you to read more than just her novels. Her juvenilia is as worthy as they are in learning about her development as a writer. Lady Susan has also been made into a movie by Whit Stillman. Stay tuned for a review on that! I got to see it a couple of months ago, and must express my opinion.

Warning: Not Suitable for Book Nerds (This does not include e-books.)

A couple of days ago, an unsuspecting, naive, version of myself was sitting at a table reading Burney’s Cecilia while eating lunch. You know how it is. You’re a bit tired and feeling a bit anti-social because it takes way too much energy to converse with people day in and day out, so you decide to read during your lunch break. It’s almost as good of a conversation deterrent as headphones. The best is a book PLUS headphones, but alas, I hadn’t brought mine with me. So there I was with a fork poised between the fingers of my right hand and my left hand holding this 1,000-page book open. A book that size is asking for someone to comment on it. I know what you’re thinking. You think you’re so smart and know where this story is going. You think someone talked to me about it.

Wrong!

My hands were in place, my hair tucked behind my ears so as not to cascade onto the page and obscure those wonderful words. I skillfully stuck my fork into my tomatoes, pulling out one small slice. Bringing the fork to my mouth, I gently extracted the tomato from the prongs. As any genteel lady would, I slid the fork between my lips. Never use your teeth, ladies. I took my time because at that moment Cecilia was making a new acquaintance, but who is she? Why am I being introduced to her in such a mysterious way??! I was absorbed, executing the motions with precision. I’d done this several times before. Nothing could go wrong, could it?

Wrong!

As I approached the middle of the right page, I moved my left hand only to find my worst nightmare–salt and allspice mingling with tomato juice. ON THE PAGE! I shoved that fork in my mouth to reach for my napkin. It happened so fast you’d have thought it was an Olympic sport. I dabbed at the page practically swearing under my breath.

And here I am two days later asking myself, “Why couldn’t it have been a YA novel? Anything but a Burney novel.” The only good thing I can take away from this is that it wasn’t one of my own novels. Then again, it would add character, a real life behind who wrote it. Never mind. There’s nothing good that came from this. All that’s left is a stained and wrinkled part of a once pristine page.

See for yourself.

Cecilia stain

 

“What other name may I claim?”: Being Nobody in Frances Burney’s Evelina

evelinaWhile Jane Austen is endearing and always worth reading time and again, Frances Burney puts a smile on my face because she isn’t as well-known, because her books seem to reflect, to an extent, her emotions while writing them, and because she wrote them despite pressure to stop.

Evelina has been a nine-year love affair, and it shows. There is nothing more satisfying than the worn down corners of a book from being shoved into purses and overstuffed backpacks, or the thumb-print sized grease stain that dots the page because you only had enough time to open a small bag of potato chips for dinner. It’s these little things that mark novels as precious to their owner, the signs of wear and tear. My copies of Evelina and Burney’s other novels have these characteristics, and I hope that one day someone else will find them as enjoyable as I do.

** As I cracked open my copy to write this, the smell of the pages carried me away to memories of cobblestone streets, dim coffee shops, and the clanking of spoons against ceramic mugs. I really miss Scotland. **

In some ways, I would suggest that Burney does more for arguing against women’s oppression than, say, Mary Wollstonecraft. Even though she might not have shouted it on the rooftops nor written scathing essays, she still felt it and spoke against it in her own way. I told you that she burned some of her writing because it was impressed upon her from a young age that this was not a field suitable for women, and that feeling continues in her writing. Her female characters are all oppressed in some way or another by the mere fact that they’re women. Granted, you could read anything through any lens you choose. For the sake of this post, let’s imagine we’re reading Evelina from the perspective of an oppressed woman in the 18th century.

Evelina, our heroine, has no name. Her father refused to acknowledge her when she was born and her mother died shortly after. Without a name, she lives a quiet life with her guardian, a man, who, though he wants what’s best for her, still contributes to her silence. She must remain silent, unmoving, so that no one will find out her sad story. It’s not appropriate while the father still refuses to acknowledge her. By some miracle, Mr. Villars (her guardian) agrees to let her stay with a friend in London, where she meets a multitude of people who question her. Who is she? Who is her family? Why does she not know the proper etiquette for dances and social calls in general? Why doesn’t she speak?

She and Mr. Villars keep up a steady correspondence throughout the book, which is how we track Evelina’s progress in society. In signing off one of her first letters to him, she writes, “I am, with the utmost affection, gratitude and duty, Your Evelina—, I cannot to you sign Anville, and what other name may I claim?”Anville is the name they chose for her to use, but it is not her name. It is almost a rearrangement of the letters in her first name. It is nobody in particular. She cannot claim her rightful name, so who is she?

On her first trip to a ball, she made several mistakes that ended up with her saying she was already engaged to dance with a man she had never actually met. Luckily, Lord Orville was gracious enough to pretend it was true. While they were dancing, Orville attempted to make conversation with her, asking her questions about how she liked the country, how she enjoyed London etc. Evelina remarks to Mr. Villars, “I fancied, he has been inquiring who I was. This again disconcerted me […].” Burney, putting emphasis on “who I was,” brings up the necessity of silence on this subject. Evelina is disconcerted by the questions, becoming quiet once again. He probed too far.

Another character remarks to Lord Orville only two pages later, “[…] but really, for a person who is nobody, to give herself such airs,—I own I could not command my passions. For, my Lord, though I have made diligent enquiry—I cannot learn who she is.” A man she just met is already calling her a nobody. While he is referring to her social status, Burney is hinting at something more. She is more than someone without a social status. She is without a name, effectively nobody. This could also refer to how Burney herself felt. She wrote her early journals to “Nobody.” She said:

“To Nobody, then, will I write my Journal! since to Nobody can I be wholly unreserved —to Nobody can I reveal every confidence, every wish of my Heart, with the most unlimited confidence, the most unremitting sincerity to the end of my Life! No secret can I conceal from No-body…From Nobody I have nothing to fear.”

Burney wrote her journal knowing no one but herself would read it. “To Nobody can I be wholly unreserved,” that “Nobody” is Burney. However, she continues on to say, “No secret can I conceal from No-body.” Notice how “Nobody” is now “No-body.” Could she be referring to other people then? If so, you could argue that she means her secrets are not safe. As a woman, it was hard to be a writer and to keep your life private. Jane Austen left a squeak in a door so she would know if someone was coming in order to hide her work. Frances Burney might have felt that same invasion of privacy. For more on Burney’s use of “Nobody,” I cannot recommend Margaret Anne Doody’s Frances Burney: The Life in the Works enough.

Evelina meets her grandmother, a vulgar woman that embarrasses her to no end. A third of the way through the novel, her grandmother makes a proposal to Evelina—to claim her rightful name. She announces at a dinner party that “she had it in her head to make something of [Evelina], and that they should soon call [her] by another name than that of Anville, and yet that she was not going to have the child married, neither.” Evelina is terrified at this news. Claiming her real name from a man who didn’t want to acknowledge it in the first place causes her “great consternation.” She has to excuse herself. Madame Duval wants to improve Evelina’s status in society, to declare what is rightfully hers, turn her from a Nobody into a Somebody. The only way to do this is to give her her real name.

Evelina’s identity relies on a name. She doesn’t have one, at least not one that’s hers for the taking. It won’t be hers until her father lets her have it. She can claim nothing, so she remains silent about herself and her past. Does she claim her real identity? Does she take another instead? You’ll have to read the book to find out. My lips are sealed. I can’t help it. I firmly believe everyone should read Evelina. I’m a huge advocate for 18th-century British literature, especially women writers, so maybe I’m a little biased.

You’re welcome for finally getting around to posting this review! Too bad it took 10 months.

Frances Burney Revisited

Remember that time, 10 months to the day actually, that I posted a biography about Frances Burney and promised you a review in a week or two of her first novel Evelina? I haven’t forgotten about it. But for today, I’ll give you a mini introduction to my reactions when I first read it.

I read Evelina in my Development of the Novel course at St. Andrews. I was rather smitten with my professor at the time so obviously nothing he suggested could be horrible, right? Something about his intelligence and love of 18th-century literature made me swoon slightly. Anyway, it was one of the few novels that semester I managed to finish reading in the week allotted me with all my other work. He was right. I loved it. As I’ve come to find, Burney’s writing is always witty, and Evelina is no exception. Right then and there, I knew I had found one of the literary loves of my life. The rest is history.

For a biography of Burney, refer to this post. Stay tuned for my review of Evelina, appearing Thursday for real this time. I even have 90% of it written!

Mansfield Park, the movie

I started writing this post three weeks ago. I forgot about it. That’s what happens when you’re busy packing I suppose.

All I have to say on my extended absence is: I’m sorry.

Now that that’s out of the way, let’s get on to what has enraged me so much that I had to write this blog post after an unfathomable sabbatical—Mansfield Park, the movie. The 1999 movie to be exact.  Have you seen it? Were you as upset as I was?

Background: I wanted a quiet Friday night by myself. I watched three episodes of Strongest Chil-Woo (K-drama, of course) and then decided I needed a little Jane Austen in my life. I’ve seen this version before. Way back when an accurate adaptation wasn’t necessary for my happiness. I had watched it the first time aware of the discrepancies but not caring too much either way. Guess what? Not now. I’m thoroughly annoyed and even perhaps disgusted with some additions and cuts from what I consider an excellent story in its original form.

Fanny Price’s brother, her best friend, William was missing. Where did he go? I don’t know. As far as I could tell, he hadn’t even been born. Why does this bother me? Well because he was a major influence and confidante of Fanny’s. They also left out the scene(s) revolving around a piece of jewelry, a cross William gave Fanny. But I guess I should forgive them for that. Since they took out William completely, it would be challenging to fit the cross necklace in. That’s why William shouldn’t have been taken out in the first place. He and the necklace were pivotal in changing Fanny’s feelings, whether for the good or the bad.

That’s ok, though, because they threw in a whole bunch of other stuff! Slavery, a very visual extramarital affair, an awkward glimpse into Edmund’s feelings that came way too early and then was forgotten for the next 45 minutes, a vocal Fanny, and hints at homosexuality in Mary Crawford. I guess if you’re going to disregard Austen’s novel, then you might as well do it completely.

Ok, that’s all. I just wanted to complain to people who might empathize. Resume your normal activities now. I’ll go back to cleaning gunk off of kitchen cabinets. FYI, I found a marvelous recipe for that. It works miracles.

“I thought—sir—it would look very well in print!”

So said Frances Burney to King George III in 1785. It seems an appropriate time to take a break from reviewing YA and MG books, bookbinding, and writing to do another series of classic literature. Jane Austen was the first and last, and that will not do. I have been craving a book that I can bury myself into, that I’ve read enough times that it’s like an old blanket, warm, safe, and familiar. This is where Frances Burney comes in. I’ve mentioned my fascination and love for her and her novels and plays before, but it’s time I share that with you!

Dr. Charles Burney

Born 13 June 1752 to Dr. Charles Burney (a well-known music historian) and Esther Sleepe Burney, she was the third of six children. Her mother died when she was ten years old, coincidentally at the same time Burney started writing. She called her writings “scribblings,” perhaps as a means of down-playing her future profession and passion. After all, women writers were still not accepted, not as they are now, or even as much as they were fifty years later when Jane Austen penned her novels. In what I consider to be a lamentable move, Burney burned her first novel, The History of Caroline Evelyn, when she was fifteen. Her first published novel, Evelina, was a sequel to that lost work. This action is a great testament to the period she lived in, and to understand burning your earliest works because it is wrong for you to write seems far from possible. In the dedication to her last novel, The Wanderer, she addresses her father:

So early was I impressed myself with ideas that fastened degradation to this class of composition, that at the age of adolescence, I struggled against the propensity which, even in childhood, even from the moment I could hold a pen, had impelled me into its toils; and on my fifteenth birth-day, I made so resolute a conquest over an inclination at which I blushed, and that I had always kept secret, that I committed to the flames whatever, up to that moment, I had committed to paper. And so enormous was the pile, that I thought it prudent to consume it in the garden.

Luckily for us, she continued writing, producing four novels, a couple of non-fiction pieces, and eight plays. I should also mention that while she wrote these plays, they were not all produced because her father and Samuel Crisp, a man she referred to as “daddy,” joined together to prevent it. One reason being, they were afraid her play The Witlings would offend real people. As far as I can tell, only one play was produced and that was Edwy and Elgiva.

Alexandre d’Arblay

Burney married Alexandre d’Arblay, a French artillery officer, on 28 July 1793. She was 41 years old, but she found someone who fit her perfectly in temperament. Her father didn’t approve of the match because d’Arblay was poor, but that didn’t bother Burney; she had enough money from selling her novels. As Margaret Anne Doody contends in Frances Burney: The Life in the Works (the best biography of Burney I have ever read), “[. . .] it was very good for the new Mme. D’Arblay to be in a position where she was not to be passive and where she counted for so much. In this relationship, she was treated as an equal. [. . .] She waited a long while, but when she married, she did it well.” They had one child, Alexander, born 18 December 1794.

The most fascinating story I could tell you about Burney should wait until I do a whole post on breast cancer, but I will say that she had a mastectomy in 1811 with only a cordial of wine to act as “anesthesia.” It’s such a fascinating story, and one that she detailed in a letter to her sister a year after. Thankfully, many of her letters survive along with several journals. Burney was prolific in her journal writing, chronicling her life, including the years she spent at court as Keeper of the Robes to Queen Charlotte, a post she was reticent to accept as it would take her away from writing. I have many more things to say about her, but I’ll hold off. If you’d like to read up on her, I suggest Doody’s Frances Burney: The Life in the Works, but there are several resources online, like this from The Burney Centre at McGill University.